Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Blog CIX (109): Eight Questions: Medieval History

John D. Hosler is currently an associate professor of history at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. He holds a B.A. and two M.A.s from Iowa State University and the Ph.D. from the University of Delaware. He is an historian of medieval military history, particularly in England and its sphere of influence, with interests in generalship, the conduct of warfare, military historiography, the art and theory of warfare, and the influence of warfare on political history. He is the author of Henry II: a Medieval Soldier at War, 1147-1189 (2007) as well as articles in Haskins Society Journal; the Journal of Medieval Military History; and the collection Mercenaries and Paid Men: the Mercenary Identity in the Middle Ages. He is currently writing his second book, titled John of Salisbury: Military Authority of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance, which is under contract with Brill Academic Press.

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
The vitality of medieval military history is remarkable and has been for the last twenty years. There is a tremendous interest in the subject and its scholars can boast of robust publication numbers. Several trade presses (Ashgate, Boydell, and Brill, for example) have actively pursued and published studies and collections on medieval war, and there is now the highly-acclaimed Journal of Medieval Military History. Contributing in large part to this phenomenon has been a renewal of interest in the Crusades since the events of September 11; while I am not certain that one has anything to do with the other in a historical sense, the terrorist acts certainly renewed interest in Western vs. Middle Eastern conflicts. Undergraduate students routinely fill classes on warfare, and we have seen noticeable numbers of graduate students in the audiences at our conference sessions. Perhaps best of all, medieval military historians are collectively a friendly and collegial group that encourages student aspirations and shares its knowledge broadly and openly. I should know: in 2000 I was one of those students who, prodded by a number of helpful, established scholars, decided to study medieval war!
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
Medieval  history is most threatened by an ongoing phenomenon we call “the death of the past”; that is, the general belief in higher education that history before 1500 is less interesting to students, less informative to the discipline, and therefore expendable. For years colleges have reduced the number of medieval courses and faculty, with much of the impetus coming from fellow historians. Those courses that have survived are expected to cover huge swaths of history. In my department both my ancient and medieval surveys are expected to cover one thousand years of history in a single semester, respectively. Our American surveys, on the other hand, cover small slices like 1787-1861, 1877-1932, or 1932-present (there is an implicit—and entirely false—assumption that too little can be known about, say, 1272-1312 to warrant such a catalog listing). In addition, retiring medieval faculty lines are not being replaced but are “retagged” into other historical fields. As a result, medieval history (along with ancient history and classics, both of which, one could argue, are actually in worse shape) is slowly disappearing from college catalogs and faculties. For example, my undergraduate institution, Iowa State University, has over 28,000 students but only one medieval historian. Some will scoff at all of this as a bit of whining—and I am sure that my own colleagues tired of my “whining” long ago!—but there is no denying that preferential treatment is given to modern history, and the discipline will need to eventually come to grips with it.
This unfortunate situation is not necessarily due to the shifting of interests to newer methods or thematic approaches to history—think gender studies, for example—because one could spend an entire career studying gender in the Middle Ages. Rather, it often stems from the ignorance and prejudices of modernists and, particularly, Americanists who refuse to include medieval studies within those subject areas and interdisciplinary studies. Over the years I have routinely heard the common beliefs: everything before 1500 “is already known”; pre-modern historians have “relatively few sources to read”; “international studies” should not include pre-modern history; and so on. This has unfortunately carried over into graduate programs: there are hardly any historians of medieval war who teach in doctoral programs in the United States. As with many problems in higher education, those enabling this “death of the past” (whether intentionally or not) are oblivious to actual student interests and demand. Most medieval historians, I suspect, will tell you that their classes are quite popular and usually fully-enrolled.
In terms of the profession at large, history is under threat from shifting local and national emphases towards applied research and the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Research and teaching that does not result in an immediate payoff is lightly regarded, and the phrase “lifelong learning” is rarer on campuses these days. History is not the only discipline watching its perceived importance decline; all the humanities and many of the social sciences face demotion as institutions and governments increasingly favor students as “customers” and education as “job training.”
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
The hottest work in medieval military scholarship today is in the area of prosopography. It centers on the identification of individual soldiers, which then enables more in-depth analyses of the profession of arms in the Middle Ages. A chief example of this is The Soldier in Later Medieval England project; based at the University of Southampton, its staff have assembled a free, online database of nearly 250,000 records of English soldiers serving in the period 1369-1453. Three edited collections of essays and a monograph, all using in some measure this vast resource, have already been published since its completion in 2009. The unambiguous conclusion from these studies is—much to the surprise (and, in some cases, chagrin) of modern military historians—that medieval warriors were professional soldiers in every sense of the word.
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
A solid record of teaching is essential (and by teaching I mean independently-instructed courses, not courses for which you were the teaching assistant). Depending on the field, a doctoral student or adjunct/visiting professor should teach both halves of their basic surveys at least twice: U.S. History I & II and Western Civilization I & II. And everyone, regardless of field, should also teach World History I & II, which is not only replacing Western Civ around the country but is also frequently being taught by Ph.D.s in American history. An upper-level course or two added to these surveys makes for a fine vitae. Versatility is the goal here: hiring committees want teachers who can cover the freshmen sections, and you will teach more of these courses than anything else over the span of your career. At my mid-level state university, each semester I teach three sections of world history and one upper-level course for the majors. Notice the 4-4 load: it is becoming more common these days, not less…
That said there is the law of diminishing returns. Once you have taught 10 sections of U.S. History, I daresay that teaching 10 more adds little to your vitae; moreover, too much teaching will inevitably impact your research output. Now, if you are contemplating community-college jobs or teaching-intensive small liberal arts colleges this is less of a negative, but if you are interested in any school with a research burden (i.e. calculated for raises and/or tenure) you need to dial down the teaching upon reaching the totals advised above. Otherwise, you might become that adjunct who is an awesome teacher but never published anything…and got beaten in a job search by a shiny new Ph.D. with an article and two book reviews.
Some qualification is needed with this last point. By now most of us are aware of the massive problem with universities hiring contractual lecturers, asking them to teach heavy course loads, and paying them peanuts and no benefits. The scarcity of full-time positions means that new Ph.D.s often labor for years on the instructor track just to pay rent—and this forces them into the “too much teaching” issue that I mention above. This is obviously a major problem, and I do not presume to have the answer for it. All I can suggest is that while you are toughing out such contracts try to keep up with your research so that you can someday transition to a full-time gig.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
Carpe diem! New Ph.D.s should seize every potential publishing and speaking opportunity that comes their way. So, when asked the questions:
  • “Would you like to review this book that is somewhat out of your research field?”
  • “We are thinking about publishing the proceedings of this conference—would you like to submit your paper for inclusion?”
  • “I know two months is a short timeline, but would be able to revise your paper by then?”
the answer should be “YES!” Journal review boards, conference organizers, and publishers are looking for dependable scholars who can meet deadlines and accommodate disparate needs. I know several historians who turn down such offers because they imagined their research appearing elsewhere; as a result, their work was not published in time to get a job and/or tenure. Over-committing, in my opinion, is one hallmark of a good young scholar.
I would also urge new Ph.D.s to create opportunities for themselves. One of the first things I did upon getting my Ph.D. was to contact the review boards of my field’s major journals and offer to write reviews, not only in my primary research specialization of Anglo-Norman military history but of books on medieval England and France, church history, the Crusades, and other areas. Presuming that you are dedicated and actively reading, you should be able to cover a similar scope. Active and reliable book reviewing (meet your deadlines!) will eventually open up opportunities in reviewing articles and books, joining editorial teams and boards, and publishing.
In addition, new Ph.D.s should be cognizant about the state of publishing in their discipline. In my field of medieval warfare some of the best research does not appear in traditional academic journals. Instead, collections of essays are now ubiquitous, and the good publishing houses peer-review the submissions. Slowly—very slowly, I should say—tenure and promotion committees are recognizing this change, and while journal articles still reign supreme book chapters do count towards tenure. In a similar vein, I would urge new Ph.D.s to think hard about publishing their first book with a university press. Obviously, one should not turn down an offer from the Yales and Oxbridges of the world, but there are several excellent trade presses that are highly ranked, peer-reviewed, and, often, better-suited for one’s specific project. Typical tenure-track faculty members have between four and six years to get the dissertation published as a book, but waiting two or three years for that perfect university press contract may mean publication happens after one’s tenure file is submitted. Obviously the particular tenure requirements of one’s institutions should be taken in account.
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma mater, etc.?
High on my list would be the issue of family. I made a deliberate decision to finish my Ph.D. before having children and it made a world of difference. A full course load is difficult enough by itself, but toss in the other activities upon which history doctoral students should be embarking (giving conference papers, traveling and conducting research, and writing book reviews and that elusive first article) and one’s schedule fills up quickly. Family slows down research. In addition, most students are constrained financially, and even those on full tuition waivers typically receive them for only a set number of years. It is crucial to finish the Ph.D. in a reasonable time span: remember, most graduates today are not finding tenure-track jobs, so spending a decade or more on a degree that results in a failed job search can be financially and emotionally devastating.
I would also warn against hubris when applying for jobs. Some grad students believe that the reputation of their program or major professor will be a major factor, but I would argue that this is only true in some cases. Medieval history, as a victim of “the death of the past,” is certainly an exception. Due to the paucity of medievalists on campuses, the hiring committee will likely reflect an assortment of fields outside the Middle Ages: in this case, no one will have heard of your adviser, much less know the scholarly impact of his/her work. At small and community colleges, the committee may even include one or two non-historians. In other words, do not bet the farm on your adviser’s letter.
My final suggestion (for those who get appointments at research institutions) would be to think about your second book. I know the dissertation is a huge project that dominates your life for years, and it will likely be your first book. But once it’s finished you will need to do something else, and many historians have a difficult time deciding upon a new project without the aid of their adviser—the result has been a number of historians who have failed to get tenure or who never moved beyond the associate professor rank.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
My suggestion would be to explore other career options. There are so few jobs these days that I cannot with good conscience recommend the Ph.D. track to a student without reservation. Only those with a burning passion for historical inquiry and the emotional/psychological fortitude to cope with disappointment, failure, and a massive debt load should attempt it.

That said, I would encourage those who do become doctoral students to discern a dissertation topic quickly; then, you should find ways to orient as much of their coursework around that topic as possible. Papers written for writing seminars should address aspects of the dissertation, for example. This helps to build your research base, which not only allows for an easier transition into the dissertation itself but also expanded conference and publishing opportunities. The scarcity of positions has really raised the bar for applicants’ vitaes, and few students will get appointments without having something in print. Grad students who put off conferences and the writing of smaller publishable pieces (such as encyclopedia entries and book reviews) until their coursework and comprehensive exams were completed, thinking that they would present or publish after beginning their dissertation research, have a harder time finding jobs. Finally, doctoral students should remember that the dissertation is not meant to be your magnum opus: anything beyond two years spent actually writing it is, in my opinion, time that could be better utilized getting published.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
The skills of a Ph.D. holder are routinely misunderstood and underappreciated by potential employers. In many cases, however, the applicants themselves suffer from a similar handicap: they are unable to cast their learned skills and personal abilities in a non-academic context. History Ph.D.s can conduct research, read and write critically, teach and instruct, meet deadlines, read foreign languages, and absorb and interpret large quantities of information—all of these are desirable skills in the private and public sectors. My best advice would be to give consideration to how these skills would benefit the business or institution to which you are applying. For the former, think about how your particular skills and/or knowledge create value for the business; for the latter, think about how your skills advance the mission statement of the institution.

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